At this point, Christian Bibles continue with twelve short books focused on seemingly minor prophets — a rather puzzling occurrence, since these fall after the big books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, as well as the earlier struggles of Elijah and Elisha. It’s as if prophecy were running out of steam.
The Hebrew canon, in contrast, unites them in a single scroll known as the Twelve — Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obediah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zepaniah, Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi. (So how many can you name?)
Each of them has something valuable to add, though they often seem to be summed up in a single quotation or two. And in trying to make sense of the historical events they address, I do get whiplash.
In my overview, considering them as together seems to make sense — kind of like looking at a team, right?
Here goes, then:
Hosea: The male God imagery culminates, along with the misogyny, even if the Jews as a people or we Christians, in succession, are cast as the whoring wife.
How far are we, individually and collectively, to go in extending such forgiveness?
Joel: Chapter 3 is a great proclamation of the Holy Spirit, a contrast to the New Testament contention that casts it as the “third person of Trinity.”
Amos: Of the prophets, I’d say he’s the most bitter, the darkest. At least the dour voice of Ecclesiastes never claims to be an oracle, unlike Amos, who nevertheless also raises a call for justice.
Obediah: I like the line, “Your proud heart has misled you,” but have to ask just what this adds to the understanding.
Jonah: Usually lost in the emphasis on the fish story is the profound personal struggle of being true to a prophet calling. He tries running away, to Spain in the opposite direction, but is thrown back with an order to command his hated enemies to repentance. And then, to his bitter horror, they do and are saved. In this sweep, what came through most for me is the black comedy. Forget the big fish, by the way — it’s too much of a distraction.
Micah: Another plea to just do what’s right.
Nahum: What do we make of Nineveh in Biblical times? After the Babylonian captivity? Here we focus on the fall of the city and its empire.
Habakkuk: Now we’re back to Babylon and its oppression.
Zepaniah: Backward even more in the chronology, to the time of King Josiah. Destruction followed by hope.
Haggai: Back from the exile, here’s encouragement to rebuild. A sense of commonwealth, too.
Zachariah: Again, shortly after the return from exile. This text is shot through with psychedelic visions, plus expectations of Messiah.
Malachi: Means simply “my messenger.” A call for faithfulness.
I was surprised that Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible had essays on only seven of these prophets, although Jonah got two commentators. Even so, the responses were lengthy, often reflections on the authors’ own childhoods and struggles with Jewish identity.
James Atlas comments that “no other Biblical story depicts so vividly the pathos of adultery” as Hosea, which “has the feel of autobiography.” It is, “among many other things, about the ungovernable, destructive force of passion” that “once sampled, rages out of control.” (A contrast to Song of Songs?)
Even so, “It’s more a diatribe than a story … and a monotonous one at that.”
Harvey Shapiro finds in Amos a violent poem of “gathering velocity” of a “people in the hands of a megalomaniac God.” The landscape is stripped by waves of locusts and then an approaching army the noise is magnified. “We are back watching the German army advance into Poland in the opening days of World War II. This is the description of a blitzkrieg, though it be of locusts.”
Moreover, “the threat of total extinction … hangs over the poem. … A Jew must feel this.”
Howard Moss writes, “If history begins with the story of other people, Amos was the first historian. … In seeing Israel as a nation among nations, and not the only one, he helped enlarge a tribal consciousness into a broader sense of a world dominated by God’s will and an overall moral view. As if for the first time, the concept of a universal man, an expansion of human purpose, was propounded.”
Unlike the other prophets, Amos was a desert yokel, a shepherd and farmer, “driven mad by the voluptuousness and corruption of cities. … Angry, forthright, simplistic, and fierce — nothing pastoral tempers his judgment. Rather, the unrelenting heat and spareness of the desert suffuse what he has to say …”
He was also “the first prophet to put his words on paper, to be a writer as well as an orator, and the precursor, therefore, of revolutionary writers from Mark [the gospel or does Moss mean Marx?] to Lenin to Lincoln, Whitman, and Marcuse,”
Curiously, “Yet, what one misses in the text of Amos is the single quotable line, the poet’s line — truth compressed into a memorable phrase — or the descriptive beauty that marks so many Biblical passages, an insight, a turn of phrase, or a moral that, withstanding endless repetition, serves for a lifetime.”
When Stephen Berg turns to Habuakkuk, “The words I read were written as words issuing from the mouth of God — as if they were heard, not created by men; given in the heat of that lost art, prayer — orphanlike despair, a man speaking directly to God, demanding response, and getting it. … Is that faith, after all: belief in a voice — not our own inner, audible, conflicted wisdom — a voice simultaneously imbued with past, present, future, so that its logic is, at its most overwhelming, in need of endless interpretation? What other situation would keep us attached to language — but language so difficult to comprehend, so impossible to pin down in its final meanings that each age has to struggle with it until the world itself ends?”
He quotes Habbukkuk’s experience: “When I heard my belly trembled: my lips quivered at the voice: rottenness entered my bones,” and remarks, “when the voice suddenly utters oracular phrases, then a man is pierced to his bones and feels death enter them.”
Berg writes, “In this song in praise of and in fear of God, the two most linguistically exquisite moments embody, first, God’s powers of awareness beyond man’s, and, second, man’s perception of his fragility in the presence of that voice, which is the presence of God.”
In the Christian ordering of the Bible, these final books of the Old Testament simply peter out. This is it? After all of these struggles, you can’t come up with something better?
In my straight-through reading, I was left feeling let down.
Francine Prose, in her review of Malachi in Congregation, has a different view. “Reading the Book of Malachi feels rather like eavesdropping on the end of a long family quarrel.” God speaks “in the voice of the irascible, exasperated, but ultimately loving parent — the voice of the father who, after so many estrangements and reconciliations, has finally had enough.”
She notes, “It is almost impossible to discover anything at all about Malachi, who not only says nothing of personal history but never once speaks of himself in the first person. In that way, he may well be, in as dual sense, the perfect conduit for God. … And God, it seems to me, has never spoken so plainly — not straightforwardly … but rather, without adornment.”
Moreover, “Having lost faith in metaphor and poetic strategy, the God of Malachi — like many fathers who feel themselves to be embattled — resorts to the bitterest and most biting of ironies. … The sarcasm here is unremitting and unsparing …”
Yet, she also sees the book coming “full circle, so that now even this threat has come to seem like further evidence of love.”
There is even “the most unequivocal promise of Messianic salvation to appear anywhere in the Old Testament: ‘Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.'”
As Prose observes, the book ends on a familial tone, where Elijah “shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children toward their fathers.”
Well, I must admit, that’s not such a bad place to end. With a promise.